CMS votes to remove Cornelius from low-priority construction list

Cornelius is back on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ priority list for school construction, after the CMS board voted unanimously Tuesday to remove the town from the Municipal Concerns Act.

The vote indicates a potential relaxing of tensions between the towns and CMS, which have clashed over the issue of crowding in neighborhood schools. Study groups formed in some of the towns have explored the idea of breaking away from CMS to relieve crowding, which the district has opposed.

“Over the last year, a lot of things happened to strain relationships from both sides,” said board member Rhonda Cheek, who pushed for the change after Cornelius leaders concluded that working with CMS was the best option. “What we’re trying to do tonight is mend that fence.”

In May, the legislature passed House Bill 514, which would allow some of Mecklenburg County’s suburban towns to create municipal charter schools. They would be supported by local taxes and can limit seats to residents. In response, the board passed the Municipal Concerns Act, which deprioritized the towns that signed on to HB514 for capital funding and school construction.

Last month, a study commission formed by the town of Cornelius found that there were “no easy answers” for them when it came to potentially breaking away from CMS.

The towns could get off the low-priority list by passing a 15-year moratorium on creating municipal charter schools. While Cornelius did not formally adopt such a ban, CMS board members said recent moves by the town, including the study, signaled a good faith effort to work together that led to the removal.

“They did a lot of work into looking at all their options and came back and said, ‘We think the best option is to work with CMS,’” board vice chair Elyse Dashew said. “We agree, and we’re ready to make it official.”

Without Cornelius, the list now consists of Matthews, Mint Hill and Huntersville as part of the Municipal Concerns Act.

Municipal Concerns Act critics

Cornelius Mayor Woody Washam said he is looking forward to a productive relationship with CMS. Washam has long been a critic of the Municipal Concerns Act and had repeatedly asked the board to rescind it, saying it was impossible to have serious conversations with the district “with the MCA hanging over your head.”

While Washam said he he still has concerns about crowding, he praised the high-performing CMS schools that currently serve Cornelius students.

“We’ve got a perfect scenario of schools in our town, with reasonably high test scores,” he said. “I am proud of public schools. I’m a product of CMS.”

Washam did not rule out pursuing other educational options for the town in the future, whether that’s more charter schools or the formation of a separate school district. However, he said his concern with any other option is the time involved, in contrast to the relief needed immediately to the crowding in the neighborhood schools.

“Anything we might try to do, like a new school district or even charter schools, would be multiple years away,” Washam said. “We’ve gotta take care of our kids now, and I’m optimistic and hopeful we can come to a good working relationship with CMS.”

While the Cornelius study commission did not recommend a course of action, a similar study group in Huntersville came to different conclusions in May.

The Huntersville group recommended the formation of a northern Mecklenburg County school district, but acknowledged that it would face an uphill battle in the state legislature, in addition to CMS opposition. The group also recommended pursuing municipal charters until a separate district could be formed.

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Annie Ma covers education for the Charlotte Observer. She previously worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Chalkbeat New York, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Oregonian. She grew up in Florida and graduated from Dartmouth College.